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Spring 2016

The Story Behind the Scientist: One Who Beat the Odds

Jacquelyn Miller shows what hard work, perseverance, and dedication can achieve

Rhesa Ledbetter

Miller and her horse, Tristan, with whom she has found much solace over the years.

Seven different elementary schools, a 9th-grade education, and lack of self-confidence are only a few of the challenges Jacquelyn Miller has overcome on the road to pursuing a Ph.D. Currently, a graduate student at Montana State University working within the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy), Miller reflects on her past and optimistically describes it as “colorful.”

Miller recalls, “I am not sure why, but we moved a lot during my school years.” She speculates it was her family’s effort to get into a better financial position, find cheaper rent, or better jobs. Things never improved much. In 9th grade, her mom pulled her out of school to help support the family financially and raise a younger sister.

Growing up, Miller has no distinct recollection of wanting to pursue a college education. She did, however, always have a thirst for knowledge. As a teenager, she worked an after-school job at a veterinary clinic. She recalls, “I had so much fun and a knack for picking up techniques.” One of the doctors told her she had better continue her education and not squander her brain. It took many years, but Miller eventually followed that advice.

She earned a GED and attended college for one semester, but someone close to her said it was a waste of time. She quit and opened a cleaning business with her sister. Several years later, she didn’t want to clean houses anymore.

Miller decided to go back to school. She chose to pursue nursing thinking that it would be mentally stimulating and provide a decent income. However, to her surprise, it wasn’t nursing she had a passion for, it was biochemistry.

Her journey into higher education wasn’t easy. She spent that first year at Indiana University South Bend taking remedial math and English courses before starting the nursing program in her second year. Miller states, “I didn’t mind taking remedial courses. It felt like penance for not finishing high school, and during that time it became clear to me college was something I could do.”

While taking a chemistry course for nurses, Miller asked many questions, but the professor’s response was often: “If you want to know the answer, come to my office. I will give you a change of major card and then we can talk about it.” She was obviously craving a deeper understanding, and with the professor’s help she changed her major to biochemistry.

She graduated college in five years despite an 9th-grade education, remedial coursework, and change of major. During that time, she helped support herself through summer research at a plant pathogen diagnostics company and tutoring at the university. “I loved tutoring. It was such a great opportunity to inspire people. To see the light in someone’s eyes when a challenging concept clicks is just amazing,” she said.

While finishing a bachelor’s degree, her original general chemistry professor encouraged her to pursue graduate school. Miller states, “I was skeptical. Am I really going to get in? Can I do this? This seems way above my pay grade.” She ultimately decided to see what happened and told herself, “If I get in somewhere, I CAN do it.”

Now a second-year Ph.D. student, Miller studies the mechanisms of electron flow and management in biological systems. Her work focuses on electron transfer proteins that have never been studied previously; therefore, she is laying the groundwork for future studies in this developing field.

The questions Miller is aiming to address are: How does biology optimize energy to get reactions done in a very efficient manner and then how do we take those cellular processes and apply them to other systems? “We are taking proteins that do challenging reactions like those involved in harnessing atmospheric nitrogen and trying to understand how they work,” she said. She hopes the information can be used to help make energy-generating processes more efficient.

The biggest challenge in her academic journey was fostering self-confidence. “There wasn’t so much a defining moment for me as just continued self-growth over the years,” Miller states. This growth has culminated into an important lesson: she no longer limits herself based on the opinions of others.

The road to pursuing a Ph.D. has been full of twists and turns for Jacquelyn Miller, but her story is a testament to what hard work, perseverance, and dedication can achieve.

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Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.